Ahmed Kathrada. Picture: THE TIMES
remembered Ahmed Kathrada. Picture: THE TIMES

This chilly Wednesday evening, at the top of Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, an intimate gathering reminded us that it was one year since Ahmed Kathrada’s passing.

Uncle Kathy’s funeral was exactly a year ago, this week. Saddening as his death was, the country was at that phase in our history that was so dark it seemed the sun would never rise again. On our coastal break in KwaZulu-Natal, storm clouds hung over the weekend with dour prospects.

It was the time of the racial incident at the Spur restaurant.

It was also a year and a day since then-finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, were recalled from their investment roadshow in the UK at the behest of then-president Jacob Zuma.

I remember feeling absolutely empty, perhaps comforted by Easter treats that unusually cold weekend.

On March 28 this year, Gordhan arrived on the hill a little later than other guests, returning from a Cabinet meeting in Cape Town. He made a quiet entrance, sitting at the very back of the tent in the first plastic chair he could find.

A few rows ahead was former finance minister Trevor Manuel; to his left, advocate Willie Hofmeyr. The frail George Bizos was in  the front row, near newly reappointed Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom.

Kathrada’s widow and former minister of public enterprises Barbara Hogan took her place to speak, preceded by Max and Elinor Sisulu, and former Wits SRC president Nompendulo Makhatswa, who recalled how Kathrada had supported #feesmustfall. A high school student remembered how he had helped her with a school project. The widow of Kathrada’s friend Laloo Chiba, Laxmi, was also in the audience.

The grouping was significant for more than the Kathrada Foundation’s memorial event.

Reverend Frank Chikane remarked that we were on a hill. Of course not literally, but figuratively as a country.

“The rot is deep, we know, but we are here and we will not be quiet anymore,” Chikane said in his soft, gravelly voice. He made sure we knew he was speaking as a member of the ANC and not as a clergyman, because “people ignore churchmen”.

Similarly, Hogan’s address was a tribute to her life partner, whose calligraphy notes she was still finding around their home, reminding her not to overindulge in chocolate, but it was also a message to the country, that we are on a hill, and it is our choice how we move on.

“It has been a long year. What a year in this country. A lot has changed … a lot more still has to change,” she said.

“I think all of us got goose bumps when [former deputy president] Kgalema Mothlante read Kathy’s letter [at the funeral] last year, and asked the president [Zuma] to step down. Together with all the massive struggles launched by civil society activists, the media … investigative journalists, all of us out there were fighting a great evil. It is wonderful that a year later we can assemble here and, without saying it is all over, say that we are over the hill,” said Hogan.

The letter has been heralded as the beginning of the end for Zuma, whom Chikane chastised for insinuating that Kathrada had been forced, or was not in cogent state of mind, when the missive was penned. Hogan also refuted this.

“I want to talk about two things. Speaking out, and when to hold your tongue. We know that Kathy, under great difficulty, wrote that letter when he finally found belief that was his … that it was correct to speak out. That letter did have impact. It gave shelter to a lot of people who felt the same way,” she said.

It seemed to spur members of the ANC into action.

Hogan said it was a way for Kathrada to leave his wish for the country.

“At the same time of writing the letter, Kathy insisted on having a flag of the ANC Prestik-ed to his computer. There was never a doubt that his love of the ANC was the love of a set of values for which they had stood and fought together,” she said.

A smile teased the corner of Gordhan’s lips when he spoke of newly sworn-in ministers, including Hanekom and himself.

He was lighthearted but realistic, recalling the turnstile spin that brought him and Jonas back to OR Tambo airport moments after they had landed in Heathrow.

I remember feeling disbelief and shock at Zuma’s gall, as did many of us. There seemed to be no hope that anything could stop the destruction of the state.

But, Gordhan reminded us, it is a year later.

“There is no doubt that Nasrec has introduced a new era, a new dawn as they call it,” he said, referring to the ANC's December elective conference.

“We are in the rebuilding phase but it has been 10 years which we need to undo. We need to bring back the phrase, ‘Pay back the money.’ Let us not forget the C word — corruption —  is not gone yet. It is time to start reporting corrupt directors of companies and blacklist them. They should not work as directors again.”

Gordhan was mild, never raising his level tone. Hogan, by contrast, had only moments of calm in an impassioned speech in which she admonished for those who went “against the values of the ANC” that Kathrada and the Rivonia trialists were imprisoned for.

“We need to understand, and this is not a glib statement, why some people who were in the struggle decided that their way forward was to enrich themselves in the name of democracy. And why others refused to enrich themselves, stood principled and engaged with SA on an equal basis, not a duplicitous basis of enriching themselves,” she said.

It was an appeal to those who will continue the work of the giants. 

“What triggers do you have in your head that you stand the test of time and you do not become inflated with an ego, vain ambition and incredible greed? What are those values that stop you from doing that, and what does it mean for the young generation with so much opportunity, and what about the struggle? What about the struggle for equality?

“In all the pains we have suffered in this country, collectively and separately, we need to look at how we get out of this. Some of us are wallowing in victimhood. If we are going to survive going forward we need to get beyond this. We need to find an identity moving forward.”

A year later, when we are divided by our opinions of convicted racist Vicki Momberg and the EFF stirring racial tension, Hogan reminded us that it is through our individual actions that we will move forward.

Remember that Kathrada’s “fierce, fierce commitment to the values, and particularly for him, non-racialism” could not be lived around our Easter braai stands, she said.

“Look at how we are becoming more and more polarised as a country today. More than ever before, we have to find one and other.

“We really do. And I don’t mean let’s all meet over the weekend and get to know one another. No. It is in the hard discussions.

“I was encouraged to hear [from youth leaders speaking on the night] that racism in the Indian community is being discussed by the younger generation here today. We all know in our own communities, what is thought and what is not thought. The project of creating a new country has to be put in motion once again.

As the evening closed, Gordhan made jokes about Gupta aircraft, the widows embraced each other, the gathering of greats took photographs with admiring guests. They made plans to meet and talk in Cape Town, chatting over samosas and tea late into the chilly evening.

Last year we might not have been laughing but now, there is a feeling we can smile a little, and I did.